I saw the beautiful Swedish-Georgian love story And Then We Danced at AFI Fest back in November. I was delighted when I heard that it was coming to Sundance 2020 because the more chances that people have to watch this film, the better. And Then We Danced features a romance between two male dancers – Merab and Irakli – which takes place in a country which is not accepting of the LGBTQ community. And Then We Danced was Sweden’s official entry to the Oscars and has toured the festival circuit since Cannes in May 2019. I was lucky enough to meet up with director Levan Akin and star Levan Gelbakhiani (Merab) in Park City to talk to them about one of the best films I saw last year.
The first thing I want to ask you about is the theme of family in the movie, which is really important – the fact that Merab has to live up to his parent’s legacy and the fact that he’s tainted by his brother’s reputation as well.
Levan A – Why did you want to feature the theme of family so strongly?
LA: I think for me, making this film, I started in a way that I usually don’t. Usually, I write a story and then I go out and try to find all the bits and pieces to fit the story that I have in my head. But with this film, I did a lot of research, more so than usual. A lot of the stories and some of the themes in the film actually came from the conversations that I had with people in Georgia. In Georgia, family is very important because people live together for economical reasons and you really need the support system of your family, financially and emotionally to survive in Tbilisi. So, it just felt realistic to include it because that’s how it is in Georgia. And also I felt that it really fit the theme of the movie, in regards to his fear of being ostracised. Not just by the dance company, he’s really passionate about Georgian dance, he watches clips on YouTube. And in respect to his family and his grandma, you get the sense that he might lose them too and that’s his safe space. So that’s why this family dynamic was really important for me to include in the film.
Levan G – did you have much time to rehearse with the actors who played your family?
LG: I didn’t get too much time to rehearse. But (the actress who plays) my mother, I’ve known her since I was a little kid. We were in a play together when I was a kid, around 14 years old. So I knew her pretty well, she’s also a friend of my mother’s, so I had this comfort zone. We did some rehearsals, but not that much. But we both knew how family works in Georgia, so we we could convey those vibes.
Levan A – another motif that runs through the film that I really love is food. It’s not just big feasts or big occasions, it’s peppered throughout eg. when Merab goes to visit his father at the bazaar and they share cucumbers and tomatoes. Again, why was that so important to show?
LA: Firstly, I’m a big foodie. To me food is life. Again, it’s very much the life and fabric of Georgia. Everywhere you go, there’s always a fruit plate put forward in front of you. It’s also a symbol because in the beginning of the film he brings home the leftovers and his grandmother questions “why are you bringing home leftovers?” (she is embarrassed that people will think they are poor). I felt like I wanted to layer the film and food was a really important layer to talk about not just Merab’s everyday Georgian life, culturally, but also his situation. So that’s why food became such a part of the film. Like when he’s with Irakli’s grandmother and they start making breakfast. Sharing food and making food together, I wanted them to feel like a couple, organising the kitchen, I thought that was sweet, helping each other set the table and things like that.
Levan A – my favourite sequence takes place at Mary’s father house, I wanted to ask you about finding that location first of all.
LA: So the location is in an area in the mountains above Tbilisi called Svaneti, it’s actually now become more of an upper-class place, people used to have their summer houses there. People who were part of the communist party got those houses for free, but they were taken from rich people who used to own them and they were stripped of their houses and they were given to members of the party. In the film, the location is not where we actually filmed. I imagined the location of the house being closer to the border, the creeping border that they talk about at the dinner because the Russians are moving. But it’s a very classical Georgian house. I wanted to tell a Georgian audience that maybe Mary comes from a family with a legacy of probably having been connected to the party at some point during Soviet times and then they got to keep the house after the fall of communism.
Levan A – the use of music starts to explode at this point of the film, you introduce pop songs such as ABBA and Robyn. From the point that Merab and Irakli first kiss and are awakened to one another, there is a much greater use of non-diegetic music, was this a conscious choice?
LA: Yes. For the first 20 minutes, there is no non-diegetic music and then when Merab and Mary are on the bus, I show their emotional bond, when she has her head on his shoulder. That’s where music comes into the movie. From that point on, as Merab awakens and starts his journey towards self-actualisation, I wanted more and more music. I’m glad that you caught that. This is a good conversation, thanks for not asking me the usual questions.
I want to ask Levan G about the Robyn sequence – was that totally freestyle, all your own moves?
LG: It was not planned. We tried several different songs of Robyn and Honey had recently come out and we had been listening. So Levan was like “OK let’s play Honey” and it just worked out.
LA: Yeah, I tried different songs to see if he would come alive and when Honey came on, he just sort of did.
LG: But it was not choreographed, it was improvisation, I just took some tips and directions from Levan.
You show a gay character (Mate) who is more out and open, Merab and him go to a club together and then visit some sex workers afterwards.
Levan G – I believe that they were real sex workers who were working that night, so how was the experience of filming that?
LG: The thing is that the queer community is so small in Georgia, if you’re one of these young kids and if you’re going out, you know all of them, all of these kids and these places. It was not a surprising thing because the guy who plays Mate is my childhood friend, we know each other pretty well. It was just a really realistic situation.
Levan A – why was it important to include these characters?
LA: I went to Georgia and started interviewing people and I came across this world of people and they already have their dynamics and their relationships and everything, so I just included them in the film. So it was a very fun way to work.
Levan G – do you consider yourself more of a dancer or an actor? Do you want to continue to pursue both?
LG: I don’t know. Since I was 10 or 11, I wanted to be an actor but at the same time, I was studying classical ballet at school and I was discovering this dance world, which is really amazing. After High School, I put in an application to theatre and film university in Georgia and they rejected me, so I was like OK maybe this is not my thing to do. Then I started practicing more and more with my dance, but then I met Levan and all of these things happened for me. I think I want to do both because the dance part in my life is really like food for my soul, but I also really like acting. I had had some experiences, but only theatre plays. But now I worked for the first time in the cinema and it was pretty pretty amazing, so I want to continue doing acting as well.
Levan A – I want to ask you about the sequence at the wedding. After Irakli tells Merab that he’s engaged, you follow Merab in a continuous shot through the building and you see that all of the rooms are full of life. Then the camera goes to a window and we watch Merab from above as he goes out to the street, sees Mary and they hug. What was the experience of filming that like and how did you achieve it?
LA: We filmed him entering the party and exiting the party in one night. I didn’t want the scene of them breaking up or Mary coming to hug Merab to feel banal because it could easily have become that, had I chosen to get into close-ups when they were talking or if I’d been on the ground when Mary and him were hugging. Also I wanted to give a sense of the camera finding its own way because it leaves him and then for the first time in the movie, it starts to live on its own. To me, that means something. It starts searching and finds them.
When I found that location, as soon as I found it, I knew. I had all these different notebooks and I write like a doctor, sometimes I can’t read what I’ve written myself, which makes things difficult from time-to-time. However, when I opened one of my notebooks when I was looking for something, I saw that very early on, I’d written that I wanted a character in the film to enter a party, looking for a specific person. Everybody has gone into a crowded room looking for someone they love. Him coming in there with hope and then him leaving the party broken, when everyone around him is happy. That’s why I wanted it to be one continuous take because I wanted it to be in the moment.
I don’t like doing these smooth, cool things. I’m not David Fincher. I love him, that’s not a criticism, but I’m not Paul Thomas Anderson and I’ll never be. But I love doing it when it really serves the narrative purpose, or rather an emotional purpose that can make things more tactile for the audience.